If you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card, you know that he is a controversial figure. He’s most notably the author of the science fiction classic Ender’s Game and its sequels and prequels, but he’s also a card-carrying bigot who hates LGBTQ+ people. I feel sort of gross just devoting a post to him, so I’ll just make sure we’re clear: Orson Scott Card is a gross queerphobe and giving money to him for his books is basically putting a donation in the hands of anti-LGBTQ+ lobbyists.
I don’t think anyone would be giving him money for his books anymore, except for the fact that Ender’s Game is a classic. It’s actually really good, you guys, and the reason that frustrates me so much is that the running themes of the entire series are ‘don’t judge other people by their appearances’ and ‘all sentient races and species are equally deserving of respect’. And between Card’s own religious beliefs—he’s a devout Mormon—and the religions he writes about, he has a lot of interesting things to say about organized belief systems. Most importantly, I think it’s interesting that he actually believes that organized religion will continue to exist in the future, because most science fiction authors tend to either avoid it or write it off as an artifact of less-enlightened times.
For the purpose of this post, I’m mostly going to be talking about the sequels to Ender’s Game, rather than the seminal work itself. Ender’s Game takes place on a war-torn future planet Earth where population is strictly controlled and religion is basically outlawed, although some people do still practice in secret. However, the conclusion of Ender’s Game ends the war, and the following three books, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind, are set on a variety of distant planets. Ending the war has allowed humanity to spread across the galaxy, and within these colonies religion once again plays an important role in society.
There were a couple things I specifically appreciated about Card’s use of religion in these sequels. First of all, one of the main conflicts involves the proselytization of other species. A Portuguese Catholic colony on a distant world struggles with sharing their religion with the pequeninhos, the pig-like sentient aliens native to that planet. The pequeninhos are the first sentient species humans have encountered since mankind’s move into space, and so the tiny planet of Lusitania becomes humanity’s proving ground for non-human religious conversion.
This is an issue that I haven’t encountered in other science fiction works—Star Trek, for example, posits that religion has died out of humanity by the time humans reach the stars, and Battlestar Galactica focuses in part on the conflict between the humans’ polytheistic religion and the Cylons’ monotheism. Neither of them deal with the problems that might arise from spreading religion, in this case Catholicism, to other species. For example, the Bible says that God made humans in his image and likeness; where does that leave non-humans, especially non-humanoid non-humans, in the pecking order? Why did God only reveal his Word to this one species on backwater Earth and not to the whole of Creation (which is pretty damn big)? How do humans convince other species that this one dude who lived thousands of years ago is worth worshiping in the first place?
I also appreciated the diversity of religions included. The main focus is on the Catholics, yes, but the books deal with a wide range of religious thought. There’s the following for the Speakers for the Dead, founded by Ender himself as a way to honestly eulogize the species he destroyed, which has gained popularity across the human colonies for its philosophy of accepting people as they are and not trying to sugarcoat their misdeeds. The Japanese-colonized world of Divine Wind was founded on Shinto principles, and the people of Pacifica embrace traditional Pacific Islander religions and philosophies. Each of these belief systems are shown to be an essential but positive influence on the characters who embrace them.
Finally, the people of the Chinese-based world of Path exemplify the way religious belief can be used for bad purposes. The government secretly genetically engineered the highest caste of their society to be super-intelligent but to also have crippling levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behavior or thoughts disloyal to the government trigger their OCD. The government passes off the compulsions experienced by these people as messages from the gods, and those who demonstrate the disorder are revered by society as the ‘godspoken’. One of the storylines in these books follows a young godspoken girl as she discovers the way her society has warped both their people and the concept of religion for their own ends.
What it comes down to, what I really like about Card’s portrayals of religion, is that they’re varied and complex, and the individual characters deal with religion in the same ways that real people do. Some struggle with their beliefs, some find comfort in them, and some reject them, but those are all realistic ways to engage with a religion. I think it’s elitist enough to assume that a scientific paramilitary organization like Starfleet would be composed entirely of atheists (which sends the message that they have shed their religious thoughts because religion and intelligence are mutually exclusive), and it’s just poor writing to assume that whole civilizations would travel to the stars and not bring the trappings of their belief systems with them.
Although my honest opinion about the sequels to Ender’s Game is that they are a tiresomely long philosophical treatise masquerading as a science fiction story, they do bring up some interesting issues as far as religion and belief is concerned. It’s not a tack I’ve seen any other writers take, and I think there’s a definite lack of that train of thought in sci-fi. Unfortunately the books are a chore to get through, given that the story and the characters seem to always be playing second fiddle to the message the books are trying to send. It’s not quite an Ayn Rand novel, but it’s a close thing.
And that’s what frustrates me so much, on a personal level. It seems counter-intuitive that Card, who clearly has a great philosophical grasp on the nuances of religion and the different ways it can serve and hurt society, still personally embraces such hateful views. And it’s annoying that the only way I can find diverse, engaging portrayal of religions in a sci-fi future is by reading his books.